Entering the Observatory, I always felt the urge to pause momentarily and bow my head. Air came and went from the room through grates evenly spaced along the ceiling, the circulators' steady hum digitally muffled. Soft white LED panels glowed dimly near the floor, casting the room in an artificial twilight. Every section of the windowless walls had been fitted with matte black baffling panels, further dampening both light and sound. No matter the noise level outside, the silence was sepulchral once I sealed the room.
A round pedestal the size of a boardroom table dominated the center of the room like an altar, its obsidian surface glossy and reflective. At intervals around its edge were a number of simple, black cloth-covered chairs, neatly camouflaged against the matching carpet and walls. In front of one of them, one small section of the desk glowed, a keyboard and trackpad projected upwards from within onto touch-sensitive glass. The remainder of the surface remained blank, as close to true black as light could produce.
I settled into the chair in front of the control station and began tapping out commands, occasionally sweeping a fingertip across the motion-capture pad. In response, the remainder of the glass surface of the boardroom table blossomed with light. In the center of the table, the symbol of Irokai beamed, slowly cross-fading into an overhead relief view of the digital world itself. Six large islands, each slightly tinted a different color, sat in an endless sea. Tram lines connected them together, criss-crossing the deep blue gulf in a silvery spiderweb.
For several minutes, my fingers hovered over the keyboard as I watched the world rotate slowly beneath the surface of the desk. The ambient light was a near-perfect imitation of night-time, but Irokai—like the world beyond its borders—had escaped the tyranny of the sun as a timekeeper. Kigiku Island's nature preserves and broad forests teemed with simulated animals, while both Murasaki and Beni Prefectures throbbed with more urban nightlife. The Bazaar at Hana was far less busy than during the day, but even it, too, never truly closed. Only Midori Prefecture seemed quiet, but at individual points within the residential districts, a few lights showed that they still had signs of life as well. Irokai continued to pulse quietly beneath my gaze, ignorant of its observer.
I lowered my fingers to the keys beneath them and resumed my typing. In a few moments, the world dimmed into the background, and a series of red and yellow dots flared across the map. For each marker, a window filled with text opened, attached to its location with a thin, angular line. One of the yellow dots pulsed regularly, asking for immediate attention. I cycled through each of the other spots first, skimming the contents of the reports that opened as I indicated them. Most of the text contained "Irokai Security" somewhere within them, flagging visitors for improper behavior and asking for confirmation from someone else. I closed each after a few sentences, moving from one to the next rapidly until I came to the flashing light, and a familiar name leapt out from the screen as the text unfolded.
In its essence, the report was another documented hacking attempt, caught and reversed by attentive Irokai Security staff. However, in the depths of its presentation, it was a cry of despair. Intricate details about which of Irokai's data structures and network protocols had been violated to cause the attack suffused every paragraph. Attached static images showed in graphic detail the constellations rearranged into English letters, the comet trails drawing kanji across the nighttime sky. The author had dedicated two full screens to references to previous attacks, complete with dates, locations, and past responses. The report finished with a single question, asking when resources would be made available to combat the growing threat. Each word had been meticulously selected for maximum accuracy and minimum emotion, but their impact taken as a whole was of that of a man reduced to begging for help.
After a few more keystrokes, two new windows hovered over the center of the world. In one, job history and personnel entries scrolled. Commendations decorated his service record. A few incidents blemished his career, but closer reading suggested that each of them could be explained away as a clash of personality with someone else in his management chain. In the other frame slowly rotated a three-dimensional model of a lanky kitsune in a black leather longcoat over a sweater and slacks. A katana in sheath hung at his waist, and one paw rested upon its hilt. Within his window, the fox turned his head, gestured with his free arm, and shifted his weight, the display giving his image the semblance of life.
One of the red dots hovering over the Bazaar faded from view. Another one turned yellow and began to pulse. I let my focus drift from the security agent's impassive violet eyes to the latest report, skimming it for the highlights. Someone had attempted to make an unauthorized copy of a vendor's program, and a local member of the security staff had been scanning the market and noticed the attempt. He'd invoked local administrative privilege to halt the copy, prompting one of the red lights I'd seen earlier. The agent had then escorted the offender out of the Bazaar with instructions not to return without a security officer as escort.
At the bottom of the report, the security agent said it was her fourth unsuccessful theft, which suggested a large but unknown number of previously undetected crimes. He'd even taken the time to comb through past incident reports to corroborate his claims. He finished his personal notes with a recommendation that the offender be exiled, and had flagged his report with a request for review, prompting the golden highlight on the map.
I opened the offender's transit file and reviewed her history. She had, in fact, been the perpetrator of multiple thefts inside Irokai, both from the Bazaar and from shops in Murasaki. However, she'd also been to Irokai at least once a month ever since its inception and spent a great deal of money within its borders, even paying to unlock special features at times. Outside of a collection of official complaints from vendors about her behavior, her reputation was excellent, with a number of people explicitly praising her for gifts she had given them for no apparent reason.
I smiled and drew my chair closer to the table, fingers working quickly over the illuminated glass. Coaxing administrative access into Irokai's traveler database without leaving a record in the security logs took longer than I had meant to spend. Resetting her criminal history and then imperceptibly corrupting the incident report took longer still. Afterwards, however, I had every reason to believe that she would take this as a sign to continue her previous behavior.
That resolved, I closed down the windows and turned my attention back to the image of the kitsune. The smile that had come unbidden to my face faded again as I studied his features. At times, the image's ears would rise, and perhaps the corners of his muzzle might lift, but never did the brief smile touch his eyes. One of his paws rested lightly on the hilt of his katana, but his fingers never strayed far from a ready position, and his posture suggested both a knowledge and willingness to use it.
His report might have been asking for assistance, but even if he never received it, he would not stop fighting for his beloved Irokai.
Irokai's and its inhabitants' safety is of utmost concern, I wrote at the bottom of the incident report. We are currently reviewing your request and will keep you apprised of any change in status. I attached my digital signature to the bottom of the file, then flagged it as needing no further action and committed the update. The window closed, and a few moments later, the flashing marker faded to a solid yellow and then disappeared.
The bulk of my work finished, I logged out of the security system, then opened my contact archive. Sifting through the list, I found the number that I needed and set up an encrypted communication channel. A speaker hidden within the ceiling buzzed twice, then twice again, followed by a beep and a woman's voice, speaking Japanese. 「Yes?」
I leaned back in my chair, elbows on its armrests, fingers steepled before my face. 「Fuki-san, I must apologize for calling you so late,」 I said quietly, taking the most respectful form I could.
A brief pause followed, and then the woman replied in kind, her voice tired. 「Sasaki-sama. As always, it is good to hear from you.」
I smiled again, watching the world turn. 「Did I wake you?」
「No,」 Fuki replied. 「Why are you calling me? You said before that all communication would be strictly textual.」
I nodded at that. 「I did, but I think someone is starting to become suspicious. Giri's latest offering is as much a diatribe as it is a report. How goes your project?」
「Not as well as we may have hoped,」 Fuki confessed. 「I have acquired an additional resource. He is dedicated and skilled, but he is still new to the team and is not yet integrated with the group. I must commend you, by the way, on your training methods. Irokai Security is very efficient.」
I allowed myself a smile at the backhanded compliment. 「I'm taking what steps I can from within, but there's only so much I can do myself. I don't like saying it, but I believe that it's time to advance to phase two.」
The voice on the other end of the call paused again, then spoke more hesitantly. 「So soon?」
「I'm afraid so,」 I replied, sitting up in my chair. 「As long as Giri's able to single-handedly undo our best efforts, this isn't going to go anywhere. We need something big enough that even he won't be able to fix it alone.」
「Understood,」 Fuki said wearily. 「I will ensure that we are ready. Is there anything else that you wanted?」
I paused a moment, then nodded again, even though Fuki couldn't see me. 「There is, yes. Giri's going to continue to be a problem unless we deal with him. I can do that, but I need a justification.」
「That will be difficult,」 she said after an extended pause. 「I am hardly in a position to set up such a situation, and Giri's reputation is spotless.」
「Not spotless,」 I said with a slight smirk. 「Merely very good. He has a history of personality conflicts in his personnel file. It seems he's a little too willing to follow the spirit of the law, but not the letter. As you know,
disobeying management can be grounds for termination.」
Fuki was silent for a time afterwards. 「Are you not disobeying management as well?」 she finally asked. 「Inciting revolt against Tadashiissei can hardly be said to be in the best interest of the company.」
I chuckled at that. 「I'm doing what is best for Irokai in the long term, which is my primary job responsibility. I have faith in your abilities, Fuki-san, and in our vision. Democracy for Irokai.」 I switched to English for the last.
"Democracy for Irokai," Fuki replied, and then came the terminating beep.
I stood and turned back to the table, watching the lights wink hypnotically across the different districts for a time. Then, with a few keystrokes, I shut down the overhead view, and the world of Irokai disappeared, leaving me in silent twilight.